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Best cities for cyclists in Canada

Many people riding bicycles down a street

Would it surprise you to learn that the best city to live in if you’re an avid cyclist in Canada isn’t Vancouver or Victoria in the western province of British Columbia? Turns out our nation’s capital is the best city to live in if you love bicycling.

According to Statistics Canada’s household and environment survey, Ottawa has the largest active cycling population in Canada. The data shows that 33% of the city’s population chooses two-wheeled transportation making it the best city for cyclists in Canada.

While Ottawa tops the list, there are cities across the country that cater to the cycling crowd. Based on the StatsCan data, here are the top 10 best cities for cyclists in Canada, and the percentage of the population that has a passion for pedalling:

  1. Ottawa, ON 33%
  2. Kelowna, BC 31%
  3. Abbotsford-Mission, BC 27%
  4. Calgary, AB 27%
  5. Greater Sudbury, ON 25%
  6. Gatineau, QC 25%
  7. Vancouver, BC 25%
  8. Guelph, ON 24%
  9. Moncton, NB 23%
  10. Thunder Bay, ON 23%

Source: Statistics Canada, Households and the environment survey, participation in outdoor activities, CANSIM (database)

Other cities rank well on other lists

Self-reported engagement isn’t the only way to measure the best urban options for those with a passion for pedalling. Every two years Copenhagenize Design Co., an international urban design consultancy, puts out a top 20 list for the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. In the last three rankings, only one Canadian city made the cut: the city of Montreal.

The list ranks 122 cities throughout the world based on a number of factors including cycling advocacy, infrastructure, facilities, safety, social acceptance and gender split.

Why aren’t more Canadian cities on international lists?

When it comes to the best cities for cyclists in the world, European urban centres dominate. In part because of their lack of urban sprawl—a North American phenomenon—and in part, because European planning departments have been making investments in cycling for 30 to 40 years. In Canada, most of the bigger cities have only just started.

Why we need to invest in cycling

Not surprisingly, the city of Copenhagen in Denmark holds the top spot in the Most Bicycle Friendly City in the World Ranking, followed by Amsterdam and Utrecht, both in the Netherlands.

Studies from Denmark show that every kilometre cycled, gives the local urban society a net profit of 23 cents. Compare this to every kilometre driven by car, where society loses 16 cents. About 45% of people commute by bike in Copenhagen.

While cycling is becoming increasingly popular in Canada, the rate of cycling in our urban areas is low compared to European cities. About 45% of people commute by bike in Copenhagen. No Canadian city comes close. While cycling is becoming increasingly popular, our cycling rates in urban centres are low compared to many European cities. Many cite a lack of infrastructure and poor safety and road awareness.

Best cities for safe bicycling in Canada

Cycling in Cities is a research program out of the University of British Columbia (UBC).  The program investigates factors that encourage and discourage bicycling, including transportation infrastructure, awareness and safety and air pollution. The research team released their own list that ranked 10 Canadian cities in order of bikeability. The research was limited to studying one city per province and, as a result, did not compare every Canadian city. Here’s the list of the best cities for cyclists, ranked by bikeability:

  1. Victoria, British Columbia
  2. Vancouver, British Columbia
  3. Montreal, Quebec
  4. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
  5. Calgary, Alberta
  6. Halifax, Nova Scotia
  7. Toronto, Ontario
  8. Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
  9. Moncton, New Brunswick
  10. St. John’s, Newfoundland

These bikeable cities ranked high because urban planning departments expanded the cycling networks through formal action plans, including Victoria’s Biketoria, Vancouver’s Transportation 2040 and Montreal’s Cycling Action Plan.

The further down the list you go, however, the more unsuitable or unsafe the cycling—challenges that can detract from a city’s bikeability. Yes! We know how hilly St. John’s is but you could consider it an added bonus of an extra workout.

Make cycling safe, no matter where you live

While making cycling safe in all areas of Canada is the responsibility of legislators, individual drivers and cyclists can certainly do their part.

Here are five tips for cyclists:

Number 1: Learn the traffic laws and abide by them.

Examples are stopping at Stop signs and giving buses the right of way. The one big advantage of cycling is that, quite often, you can use the HOV or public transportation lanes during rush-hour. These lanes are often less-crowded and move faster, meaning you get to where you need to do much faster, as well.

Number 2: Be safe and visible and bike defensively.

It seems like a no-brainer, but wear a helmet. Better still, wear safety lights and reflectors. The more a car can see you the less chance you’re involved in an accident that you’re sure to lose. Now, take all this safety one step further and bike defensively. Keep your eyes upon the road to monitor what’s up ahead. Assume drivers can’t see and communicate your intentions and movements early and often. That means learning hand signals and using them. Also, stay alert. Don’t cycle with headphones on or while talking on your phone. One of your biggest defence tools is your ability to hear and this is practically eliminated if you’re busy listening to something or someone else.

Number 3: Claim your spot on the road.

Many inexperienced cyclists assume that you must hug the curb, no matter what. That’s just not true. While many cyclists will cycle near the curb—it’s faster in that bike lane—you’re well within your right to claim a spot on the road. Riding behind cars rather than beside cars can actually be much, much safer, depending on the traffic and conditions.

Number 4: Watch out for parked cars.

When you’re biking on a city street, it’s tempting to weave in-and-out of stop-and-go traffic and parked cars. Don’t. When you do this your cycling becomes more erratic in a tighter, more confined space. This combined with driver inattention or inability to see you can increase the chance of an injury or accident.

Number 5: Don’t pass on the right.

You see a traffic slowdown and it’s so tempting to keep moving and overtake on the right. Stop! Drivers don’t anticipate anyone passing on their right, which means if you do and they aren’t paying attention you could be in serious trouble.

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Romana King

Romana King is an award-winning personal finance writer, real estate expert and the current Director of Content at Zolo Homebase. Romana has contributed to business and lifestyle publications including, Toronto Sun, Maclean’s, MoneySense, Globe & Mail Custom Content Team, and The Toronto Star. Among her achievements, Romana won silver for her annual Where to Buy Now real estate package in the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. In 2015, she won a SABEW Business Journalism award. When she was editor of CI Top Broker, Romana helped guide her team to obtain its first KRW Business Journalism nomination, and in 2011, she was part of a small team that helped MoneySense win Magazine of the Year at the 34th annual National Magazine Awards. Her north star is to consistently provide actionable, valuable and accurate information that helps elevate the financial literacy of everyone.